A gallop through English myth

John Gardner, 1917-2011

The Ballad of the White Horse by John Gardner. Hilary Davan Wetton conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra, City of London Choir and Paulina Voices, with Ashley Riches, baritone. EMR CD057

STUART MILLSON relishes a forgotten folkish treat

In the late 1950s, the English composer, John Gardner (1917-2011) – one of many forgotten or neglected figures of 20th-century English music – was introduced to G.K. Chesterton’s epic-verse, The Ballad of the White Horse. The poem tells the story of the Bronze Age chalk symbol etched into the Wessex downland at Uffington; and in folklore, forever associated with King Alfred, his Danish adversaries, and the fate or permanence of England itself. Disaster, if ever the horse should fade and disappear over the seasons and centuries into the grass and weeds of the hills…

Gardner’s English legend (first performed in Bournemouth) was completed in 1959 – the same year in which Britten’s St. Edmundsbury Fanfare was performed at a Magna Carta pageant in the county town of Suffolk. Clearly in post-war England – a land of municipal planning, still affected by the austerity of the war years, not to mention the national crisis in self-confidence following the Suez debacle – composers were subconsciously, perhaps, drawn to ancient tales of heroism and mystery. John Gardner was, indeed, attracted to an alternative vision of society: a ruralist circle, based in Dorset, presided over by a rustic magus – Rolf Gardiner, who proclaimed his belief that England could only revive through a pure, ancestral way of living “from the herb to the hymn”. His group, the Springhead Ring, had drawn together an array of people, determined to return to archaic agricultural methods and to restore the folk-traditions, the very music of England – and Gardner, for a time, assumed the role of composer-in-chief.

The White Horse at Uffington

At that time (almost like a mediaeval association), a Dorset Guild of Singers had come into being, uniting many different local choral groups, from the Isle of Purbeck to Corfe Mullen; and they seemed to provide a bridge between the communal retreat of Springhead and the wider cultural world – the Guild performing alongside the nationally-renowned Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, whose conductor in those days was Charles (later, Sir Charles) Groves, a much-loved recording artist for EMI through the 1960s and ‘70s. John Gardner, therefore, had a ready-made choral and orchestral institution at his disposal, and he wasted no time in writing his Chestertonian ballad – ensuring that the choral writing would be ‘simple’ enough for non-professional choirs to rehearse and perform, but deep enough to appeal to a musical audience.

Charles Groves and his musicians liked the work and it was performed to some acclaim, but official tastes were changing in Britain’s arts and music establishment (particularly at the BBC). Continental modernism was in the ascendant – dancing on the village green was out. So it was a remarkable find, when the English Music Festival’s recording arm, EM Records, re-excavated John Gardner’s White Horse from the weeds and from obscurity – setting down a fine and thoughtful performance on CD, with the City of London Choir and the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of English music specialist, Hilary Davan Wetton.

Mr. Davan Wetton has already proved himself as a rescuer of lost scores, taking rare ballads by Gustav Holst to the Hyperion record label, with the Philharmonia Orchestra – and there is some stylistic similarity between the Holst pieces and Gardner’s ballad. And yet the latter composer’s work seems to escape definite comparisons with the work of others – the Dorset revivalist eschewing the tankard-in-hand style of a typical throaty ballad and taking the listener, instead, to a lost world of downland mists: of harp and wind instruments setting a long-ago atmosphere – of brass summoning men to arms at Ethandune – and at the end – after the defeat and baptism of the Dane, Guthrum – an uncertain, dark prophecy for England. In the low registers and fading of the music, there is a feeling of dark clouds gathering, far, far away over the ridges and trackways – but gathering, nonetheless.

The performers on this superb EM Records issue cannot be faulted: the BBC Concert Orchestra, clearly relishing the progress of Alfred and his men, and enjoying the many interesting harmonies, dramas and shadows in this surprising score. There is a plain beauty, too, especially in the fifth section, entitled, The Harp of Alfred – the sort of touching, nostalgic tune in which English composers, led by Elgar and Vaughan Williams, excel. The City of London Choir (and Paulina Voices, from the St. Paul’s School, where Holst once taught) – and baritone, Ashley Riches – sing superbly well throughout this epic work, which runs just short of 50 minutes.

The CD also gives us a wider insight into John Gardner’s work, with the inclusion of his English Ballad of 1969 – a work which, in its concluding climax, romps and roars along; gaining extra acceleration from the unexpected leaping-in of an electric guitar player. Just like fellow-composer, Malcolm Arnold – who in 1969 championed the uniting of classical music and rock in Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra – Gardner showed an equal commitment to music in which different genres and worlds could mingle.

Auntie’s anti-conservatism

ALEX PUGH suggests some reasons why the BBC is so leftwing

I first worked in the BBC in 1981 in its Birmingham Pebble Mill studio. I well recall its large bar, where I sometimes drank with a middle-aged producer. One day, a Cheltenham MP named Charles Irving was in the news. This producer said to me, “He’s a hang ‘em and flog ‘em Tory like me”. Apparently Irving wasn’t (1), but that’s by the way. My point is I cannot imagine anyone in the BBC uttering such a view today.  I do wonder what this chap would make of the fact that since 2018, his old employer has its first Gender and Identity Correspondent.

Broadcasting is a strange world. It’s one where a man convicted of sadistic crimes against a male escort is welcomed back after jail (if he’s Boy George) – yet also one where leading names who say something the BBC doesn’t like hearing will not last long. For confirmation, see Pete Murray, Robin Page, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Sarah Kennedy, Carol Thatcher… And, I suppose, Jeremy Clarkson (2).

Are the broadcast media left wing – and if so, can we establish why ?  To keep things simple, I will focus on the BBC. 

Let us first define ‘left wing’. Time was when it meant socialist, with its policy of wealth redistribution, the abolition of class barriers  and even of capitalism itself. It’s fair to say such was what inspired the makers of BBC dramas like The Price of Coal, a 1977 two-parter for Play For Today. It was written by Barry Hines and Ken Loach, the duo behind Kes. Such work recalls the Italian realist school of film. It was of its time and helped explain why Play For Today was cited as proof in its day of the BBC’s leftist bias. Yet most of the Beeb’s prolific drama then was, if I recall, studio-based adaptations of famous novels. These tended not to be overtly political.

Left wing politics have since then had a big rebrand, in the mould defined by the late Stuart Hall of the Open University as “race, gender and sexuality” (3). Imported from the USA in the 1960s, this became the trinity of the British New Left. It was certainly the religion of New Labour and, thanks to their long spell in power, one that has been woven into the legal framework of modern life here, despite ten years of Conservative prime ministers. Policies such as multiculturalism lie at its core. The US notion of ‘political correctness’ derives from this broad ideology.

If that is how we’ll define ‘left wing’ today, we could look at the BBC’s output and decide whether this seems its prevailing mindset.  What’s more useful is to quote some individuals who have been the face of its leading service, national news.  Here are some interesting statements:

  • “The BBC is not neutral in multiculturalism: it believes in it and it promotes it” – or so a news executive there told Jeff Randall, a former Business Editor
  • “The BBC is not impartial or neutral.  It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias” – this was from Andrew Marr
  • “At the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the left”.  So said the late Peter Sissons. He added: “I am in no doubt that the majority of BBC staff vote for political parties of the Left”
  • “Of course there is political correctness at the BBC” – that’s the opinion of Jeremy Paxman
  • “The Guardian is their bible and political correctness their creed”, said Michael Buerk
  • John Humphries later wrote of the BBC’s “even greater fear of the politically correct brigade and the most fashionable pressure groups usually from the liberal Left, the spiritual home of most bosses and staff”
  • Most recently, ex newsreader Jan Leeming complained, “Why is the BBC so in thrall to the woke minority while ignoring the wishes of so many of its loyal regulars like me? [W]e are all being infantilised, treated as if we can’t cope with anything that anyone might find offensive…Treating the population like children by sanitising everything, suppressing debate, and ‘no-platforming’ is extremely damaging. ”

Such remarks from seven of the BBC’s most eminent journalists of recent years not only suggest a striking pattern: they also leave you in no doubt the BBC must indeed be left-wing, if they all say so! Surprisingly, in 2010 the Director General himself – Mark Thompson – wrote “In the BBC I joined 30 years ago [1979], there was, in much of current affairs…a massive bias to the left”.  However, he continued “Now it is a completely different generation… It is a broader church”. So, no worries there then.

A cynic might say this change had come pretty quickly, for in 2001 another BBC journalist – Robin Aitken – had written “If the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’, the BBC was ‘institutionally Leftist’”.  Later, in 2007, he stated “being a Tory in the BBC was the loneliest job in Britain” and added “ ‘Neutral’ for BBC journalists is left of centre for everyone else”. In his 30 years at the BBC, Mr Aitken had seen it “transformed from the staid upholder of the status quo to a champion of progressive causes”.

His timeframe interests me, because it makes me think of how I remember Radio 4 when working there in the early 1980s. Certainly there were a lot of left-leaning people in their 20s and early 30s, but the producers I worked for mainly struck me as mildly Tory. I was a bit surprised when the presenter of our show said, approvingly, “there are many Territorial Army men at the BBC”. He also suggested I join the RNVR: “I can see you in a sub-lieutenant’s uniform”. This was 1982. Alan Protheroe, the BBC’s Director of News who clashed so bitterly with Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands coverage that year, was himself a TA colonel.

My memory of that era was of a BBC that was quite a broad church, in a national industry with many Conservative-voting TV employees. It was ITV’s World In Action that was then considered the hotbed of TV left-wingery, although News At Ten was fronted by Alastair Burnet, a Tory. I cannot imagine the criticisms of the BBC quoted above being made back in the 1980s. There was of course a system then to keep the dreaded lefties out of the BBC: security vetting. For my job as a Radio 4 researcher, my name was sent off to some vague Whitehall desk to see if alarm bells rang. In the late 1960s, people accepted for the BBC graduate training scheme sometimes had the job withdrawn after MI5 said “no”. 

I’ve talked so far about news programming. But when we remember ‘the golden age of telly’, we most likely recall the comedies.  It speaks volumes about today’s BBC that it still shows Dad’s Army, but that was just one of many comedy series. The Good Life, To The Manor Born, Are You Being Served? and co. were all safely apolitical.  Today, what passes for TV comedy is frequently left-wing – for nowhere has dumped its traditional conservatism more than British comedy. I cannot imagine a right wing comic getting very far these days, whether in festivals or on TV.

A current affairs TV presenter told me in 1990 that clever graduates of the right entered law, those of the left the media. The BBC was always accused of being left-wing, albeit by Tories rather than by its own presenters. It begs the question how the left-wing BBC so trenchantly described by Messrs. Buerk, Paxman, Sissons and co. came into being?

I think three things have happened since the 1980s. TV has become detached from its regional roots, driven in part by the rise of London-based later arrivals like Channel 4, Sky and Five. Forty years ago, both the BBC and ITV drew huge cultural input from outside London. Pebble Mill, for example, made radio and TV for local, regional and national audiences. It fused broadcasters closer to their audiences, and provincial life is more conservative. Modern leftism by contrast is metropolitan: an increasingly London-centric broadcasting sector came to reflect this.

Secondly, Britain itself became more left-wing from the 1980s onwards. Just look at the ever-expanded higher education system. Broadcasting mirrors that trend. The Tories have an 80 seat majority based on almost 14 million votes. Yet well over 16 million voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Scots/Welsh nationalists. We live in a decreasingly conservative country, where even large corporations want to prove how right-on they are, and diversity is their new mantra.

Thirdly, wherever left-wingers or ‘progressives’ move into a field, be it universities, TV, or the civil service, they soon exclude anyone of differing views. Consequently, If someone were to attend a job interview in TV and express admiration for Margaret Thatcher or Enoch Powell, it’s hard to imagine he or she would be chosen.

In this new Britain, is it any wonder the BBC is left wing/liberal/PC – however you term it ? The new director-general, Tim Davie, stood as a Conservative councillor in London in 1993.  I doubt it will affect BBC editorial output, even if it does enable someone to say the organisation can’t possibly be left-wing if it is run by a Tory.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Sir Charles Graham Irving, 1923-1995, MP for Cheltenham. The Independent’s obituary certainly does not suggest ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ tendencies
  2. In 1983, the BBC cancelled veteran DJ Pete Murray’s programmes after he called for listeners to vote Conservative. Ecologist Robin Page’s BBC appearances (including six years presenting the popular One Man and His Dog) dried up after various ‘controversial’ comments. Robert Kilroy-Silk was sacked by the BBC for a 2004 Sunday Express article entitledWe Owe Arabs Nothing”. DJ Sarah Kennedy claims she was forced out of the BBC in 2010 (ostensibly for health reasons) for her views on race and Enoch Powell. In 2009, Carol Thatcher was ejected from the BBC’s One Show for referring to a black tennis player as a “golliwog”. Jeremy Clarkson was replaced on the Top Gear motoring programme in 2015 after a fracas with a caterer, but also for a habit of ‘offensive’ remarks
  3. Stuart McPhail Hall, 1932-2014, Jamaican-born academic and co-founder of the New Left Review

Un-easy listening

DEREK TURNER tries translating Lingua Ignota

Radio 6 is one of the rare good things about the BBC, championing alternative, independent or overlooked pop and rock from the 1950s up to the present. On any evening of any week, you can hear anything from film scores to 1960s psychedelia, prog rock to trip-hop, industrial to African traditional, post-punk to ambient, English folk to early electronica. 

Some featured acts are household names, although R6 tends to play their less well-known repertoire. Other bands once launched to critical acclaim, but decades ago broke up for unviability, their personnel compelled to give up their guitars for jobs in insurance offices. New bands first heard here sometimes graduate (or deteriorate) to Radio 2 and mainstream success, but most will not, a single R6 airing perhaps their only hearing beyond Youtube channels, family downloads, or odd appearances in the fields of small and soon-forgotten festivals.

Melancholia surrounds some of this music – a sense of talents wasted, and energies expended uselessly ages ago – but much of it is likeable for its lack of self-pity, its performers clearly never caring what the mainstream might think, focusing solely on making sounds that satisfy them, or say something about the way they view(ed) the world. Much of this music is ergo striking, although much is not good. But every so often, a song comes on that is more than soundtrack to some activity – that makes you stop whatever you are doing, and just listen.

This happened for me last year, when I heard this. I stood in the middle of the kitchen with dishwater dripping from my hands, as Do You Doubt Me Traitor raised hairs on my nape. Even on a station which prides itself on un-easy listening, lines like “Every vein of every leaf of every tree is slaked with poison” and “I smell you bleeding” command attention – especially when delivered with a combination of soaring artistry and a voice vibrating with barely-controlled violence. In a world of singers showing their sores, this was clearly someone with something really to say, or shout about – and shout about with surpassing skill. “Your flag flies above every door” that voice went on vehemently, and ever since Lingua Ignota’s flag has flapped over mine.

Hildegard of Bingen’s secret alphabet

Lingua Ignota (“unknown language” – a term derived from the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who devised her own secret alphabet) is Kristin Hayter, born 1986 in California. She is a classically-trained pianist and singer with three studio albums to her name – Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him, All Bitches Die and Caligula – and an album of cover versions expected (she has previously covered, perhaps unexpectedly, Dolly Parton’s Jolene). She is involved with a kind of alt-supergroup, Sightless Pit, which released its first album Grave of a Dog in February, with such crepuscular song titles as Kingscorpse, Miles of Chain, and Whom the Devil Long Sought to Strangle.

Hayter’s music is uncompromising and unclassifiable – drawn up from choral and classical aquifers, updated with extreme metal, grunge, indie and noise, darkened by dreams and memories of lost faith and sexual violations. She writes, she says, “survivor anthems”, where The Well-Tempered Clavier meets Me Too, angst encounters anger, and a new revengeful genre struggles into guilty life.

Butcher of the World begins with Purcell’s plangent Funeral Music for Queen Mary, then suddenly late 17th century pain becomes early 21st century agony, as that already harrowing tune is lost and then found again amidst what can only be described as a wild howling. Albeit often wordless, the vocal line is the SOS of someone who is unusually articulate (she has degrees in fine art), but also feels more deeply than most. An epic self-pity that could be tiresome in less capable hands is transfigured into an epochal plaint – a plaint against bullies, betrayers, and ugliness, this West that’s gone wrong, this world without certainties.

An unknown language of a kind indeed, uttering unpalatable truths – feminist anthems (although she claims her songs are not feminist) and First World neuroses, but also wider existential longings, rising above sex into spirituality. She says Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft, but it seems more likely to be disappointed devoutness. Anger is essentially a short-lived emotion, requiring too much energy, and fundamentally unsatisfying.

Song titles resonate with Biblical notes, intended to be critical of Catholicism and certainly interpreted that way by fans, although perhaps they are less critical than they (or she) think – Faithful Servant Friend of Christ, Fragrant is My Many Flower’d Crown, O Ruthless Great Divine Dictator (which “embodies the hypocrite and the false prophet”), Holy is the Name (Of My Ruthless Axe) and I Am the Beast  (“Come claim me” she begs in this last, her vibrato especially desolating, like some song of desert sunrise). Is it patronising to feel a degree of pity for her – to hope one day she discovers peace (even at peril of stilling the startling music)?

There is a mystic of a very medieval kind (cf. Hildegard) beneath her thoroughly modern moroseness – an instinctive ecstatic inside the self-Hayter. When she stands on stages and hits herself to the titillated groans of the audience, she is a sort of stylite, lost in 2020’s equivalent of epidemic chorea or even, as she has said, an “exorcism”, during which she is a “conduit” of something infinitely bigger than herself. Some musicians are cynics, who stop gyrating as soon as they are out of sight of their audiences, but she seems wholly heartfelt, as if captured by complexes. When she comes off stage, does she, I wonder, feel curiously cleansed – as if she has just come out of one of childhood’s confession booths?

Kristin Hayter is by any standards a ‘difficult’ musician, alternative even in relation to other alternative artists. She will never get rich from her music, and her lingua is likely to remain ignota to many. But for others, what she sings with such skill and soul sinks in, and seems likely to stay.

Why Milton matters

Gustave Dore illustration for Paradise Lost

BARRY SPURR rides to the rescue of the blind visionary

When the Oxford philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, was at St Paul’s School in London, in the 1920s, John Milton’s 200-line pastoral elegy, ‘Lycidas’, was set for learning by heart by the boys. Decades later, when Berlin visited the newly-established Wolfson College in Oxford, it was mentioned that “Wolfson” was the translation of the Greek, ‘Lycidas’, “son of the wolf”, whereupon Berlin spontaneously launched, from memory, into a recitation of the poem. A century earlier, it had been observed – was it by Macaulay? – that if all texts of Milton’s twelve-book epic, Paradise Lost, were lost, there would be sufficient readers able to remember such substantial portions of it by heart that it could be recovered completely. Such was the place, only equalled by the works of Shakespeare, the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, that Milton’s poetry once enjoyed in the reading culture of the educated English-speaking world.  

Had you suggested, say, 50 years ago, to anybody working as a senior high school English teacher, or an academic in an English Literature department – or even, more generally, to men and women who prided themselves on being widely and deeply read in the great books – they would have been dumbstruck, astonished, appalled that the time would come, by the beginning of the 21st century, not only that the poetry of John Milton would no longer make an occasional appearance in senior English classes and syllabuses, but that it would disappear entirely from university courses in English, and that there would be PhD graduates in the subject (even writing, specifically, on poetry), and university professors of English who had never read or studied a line of Milton’s works. Yet such is the case today. George Orwell, in fact, predicted the future disappearance of Milton as long ago as 1948, when he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We are becoming familiar with the dismal phenomenon of the ‘cancel culture’, whereby any figure who fails to comply with the enforced principles of the halo-polishing ‘woke’ enforcers of ‘correct’ thought will be vaporised, like a deletion from the Soviet Encyclopaedia. Writers are proving to be fair game in this extraordinary revival of censorship in our time, which, as often as not, is based on risible ignorance of the contexts and nuances of the banished writers’ thought and art – as in the recent cancelling of the American novelist, Flannery O’Connor, a prose-writer of genius, by Loyola University in Maryland. This was stridently supported by people who shamelessly confessed that they had never read a word of her allegedly ‘incorrect’ writings. Blinkered ignorance, through the ages, has been the censors’ and the book-burners’ familiar companion.

The disappearance of Milton’s poetry has been a more protracted process and a more complex phenomenon. And it is interesting to consider the fate of Shakespeare, whom Orwell also imagined, but incorrectly, would be eliminated by the Thought Police. The playwright was customarily paired with Milton as the two geniuses of the golden age of English literature, but he has survived, nay flourished – well, at least to date, though no-one will be surprised if the dramatist’s ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ find him (and statues of him) in serious trouble very soon. Part of the explanation of these different fates could be that, with drama, the apparently endless possibilities for adaptation at the whim of ‘cutting-edge’ directors has given Shakespeare’s plays the possibility of a species of survival which poetry, resistant to such (mis)treatment, conspicuously lacks. In the Bell Shakespeare Hamlet,in November, 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer reported that several of Hamlet’s major speeches had been mutilated, to be served up like “chopped salad”; while Lloyd Evans’ review of Bridge Theatre’s 2020 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, asked: “Is this Shakespeare? It looks like a fancy-dress party in a warehouse”.

The poetry of Milton – and particularly his masterwork, Paradise Lost – progressively receded from view, in the lecture halls of the later 20th century, for a combination of reasons beyond the most obvious one that would make him an easy target for spontaneous cancellation today: his Christianity. A post-Christian age (and, especially in the universities, a militantly anti-Christian environment) inevitably deprecates an entire body of work that is so deeply influenced by Christian ideas and, obviously, the Bible itself. Through its 12 books, Paradise Lost is the most exhaustive and imaginative of poetic explorations of the fundamental Christian story of creation, sin and redemption. Even Milton’s forthright opposition in prose, as well as poetry, to monarchy, the Established Church and Catholicism, his support of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth during the period of the civil wars, and, in his radical social teaching (his enlightened advocacy of divorce on the grounds of a couple’s incompatibility, for instance) have proved surprisingly insufficient to assuage the opposition to a poet so deeply immersed in his version (often heterodox in its details) of Christian scripture and theology. But other factors, apart from this issue of faith, have played at least as significant a part in his disappearance.

There was, for example, the formidable influence, in schools and universities, for several decades in the mid-20th century, of Modernist poetics and literary-critical principles. Particularly, T.S. Eliot took up the cudgels against Miltonic epic language (in the first of two essays on the poet, in 1936) and what he regarded as its bad influence on poetry in English, generally: “an influence against which we still have to struggle”. Milton writes English “like a dead language”, Eliot contended, and (being blind) was deficient in the visual sense: “Milton may be said never to have seen anything”. Leading literary critics of the time promptly took their cue from the most influential poet-critic of their generation. At Cambridge, F.R. Leavis wrote:

Milton’s dislodgment, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss. The irresistible argument was, of course, Mr. Eliot’s creative achievement; it gave his few critical asides …their finality, and made it unnecessary to elaborate a case. Mr. Middleton Murry also, it should be remembered, came out against Milton at much the same time

Devastating as this assault may have seemed (and Eliot modified his critique in a later essay in 1947), it had the positive effect of putting Miltonists on their mettle to come to the defence of the poet and his prosody.

We should also remember that reservations about Milton, the man and his work, were not confined to the 20th century Modernists. Samuel Johnson’s ‘Life of Milton’ (1780) is replete with ambiguous assessments of the poet’s crowning achievement: “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is”; “the want of human interest is always felt”, and so on. And ‘Lycidas’ is rejected outright: “Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting”.

Such forthright frontal attacks (indicating, again, what a formidable presence Milton once had in the mind of the reading public, to call forth such strident opposition) ultimately proved less damaging to Milton and his centrality to the canon of poetical works, than other prejudices and obstacles, in our time, which – in addition to the anti-Christian disposition of the academy I have mentioned – have secured his suppression. One of these is feminism. And again, we have the unlikely figure (in this context) of Dr Johnson to thank for initiating this particular critique, with regard to the poet’s allegedly low regard for the female sex:

…his first wife died in childbed, having left him three daughters. As he probably did not much love her he did not long continue the appearance of lamenting her, but after a short time married Catherine, the daughter of one captain Woodcock of Hackney; a woman doubtless educated in opinions like his own. She died within a year of childbirth, or some distemper that followed it; and her husband has honoured her memory with a poor sonnet

Milton’s granddaughter, Johnson reports,

…knew little of her grandfather, and that little was not good. She told of his harshness to his daughters, and his refusal to have them taught to write

In the later 20th century, it was the representation of Eve in Paradise Lost that most stirred the ire of feminist commentators. “Our first parents”, at their creation, Milton writes, were

Not equal, as their sex not equal seem’d;
For contemplation hee and valour form’d,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him;
His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d
Absolute rule. (IV, 294–99)

Then, Eve’s fruit-eating action in Eden initiated nothing less than the Fall of humanity – what John Henry Newman called our “aboriginal calamity”:

her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost. (IX, 780-84)

Seduced by Eve, “fondly [foolishly] overcome with Femal charm”, Adam completes “the mortal Sin / Original” (IX, 99, 1104-5), the source, in Christian teaching, of all the subsequent misery of human life. In the face of this, the first man issues a monitory message to all men about the Daughters of Eve:

Thus it shall befall
Him who to worth in Women overtrusting
Lets her Will rule; restraint she will not brook,
And left to her self, if evil thence ensue,
Shee first his weak indulgence will accuse.  (IX, 1182-6)

Next, with reference to these contemporary obstacles, and with regard to the process of understanding the poetry, there is the matter of Milton’s vast learning, especially in the classical languages and literature, with which educated readers, once, had at least a degree of familiarity. That background in Latin and Greek has long since disappeared from virtually everybody’s educational experience. So Milton’s detailed appropriation and re-imagining of a host of texts from antiquity which informs so much of his poetry, having been acknowledged, we then must accept that if we are to enter with confidence into the breadth and depth of the poet’s imaginative world, we need to develop a degree of that knowledge (even if only of texts in translation) ourselves. It is a formidable obstacle.

And then there is the matter of the grandiloquence of Milton’s “grand style” as Christopher Ricks terms it, in Milton’s Grand Style, his well-known study of Milton’s poetic voice. The Victorian laureate, Lord Tennyson, in his tribute to the poet, noted the instrument which captures the sound and majesty of Milton’s verse-music:

O mighty-mouth’d inventor of harmonies,
O skill’d to sing of Time or Eternity,
God-gifted organ-voice of England,
Milton, a name to resound for ages….

But if we in the modern age, as Helen Gardner has suggested in her reading of Paradise Lost, have a “distaste for the heroic”, we may also be disinclined to revel in the grandeur of the epic voice in poetry, the fit accompaniment for that heroism. As Eliot wrote of some lines in Book XI:

I can enjoy the roll of

Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can,

And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,

To Paquin of Sinæan kings; and thence                   

To Agra and Lahor of great Mogul,

Down to the golden Chersonese; or where

The Persian in Ecbatan sat, or since

In Hispahan; or where the Russian Ksar

In Mosco; or the Sultan in Bizance,


and the rest of it, but I feel that this is not serious poetry, not poetry fully occupied about its business, but rather a solemn game

Yet the aural grandeur of the catalogue, here, is essential to two vital aspects of the epic undertaking on which Milton has embarked. Its roll and cadence, stylistically, is what one expects of heroic poetry (so to criticise Milton for sounding like an epic poet in the course of an epic poem is disingenuous). More importantly, it was a part of his purpose to compose not merely a national epic, but one of global range, and from the beginning of time, no less, so such catalogues of places, their rulers and histories, at various points in the poem, are a vital element in that extraordinary aspiration to cosmic completeness.

Then there is the unavoidable fact: Milton is a dead, white, male. The times are not propitious for the recovery of the appreciation of his extraordinary literary achievement, but the day may well come when this current blight of acceptable racism and sexism is just a bad memory of a corrupted culture that eventually came to its senses.

The case for the defence

From what, then, should the case for the revival of the poet’s works as an essential component for study in senior English classes and, more urgently, in university courses (where the teachers of such classes are educated) proceed? Why does Milton matter not merely as much as ever, but more than ever? Several reasons can be offered.

Some proceed from issues implicit in the very objections that have customarily been made to Milton’s verse. As we have said, the fact that so many figures of notable standing, through the ages, in the evolution of literature in English have engaged, whether positively or negatively, with Milton and his poetry indicates its significance. To ignore him is to ignore one of the most influential writers in the language. Even poets composing in pointed reaction against him, as in the brilliant satire by Alexander Pope in ‘The Rape of the Lock (1712), reveal a deep knowledge of what they are caricaturing and parodying. The reader who has not read Paradise Lost misses much of the point of the scintillating humour of that brief mock-epic of Belinda’s “fall”. When the early Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, a century later, invokes Milton in a powerful sonnet as a force of national moral regeneration – “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee” (‘London, 1802’) – he is paying tribute to that profound ethical sensibility which informed the great poet’s life, as well as his works:

Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart: 
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

While in the midst of the Victorian Age, the inimitable and inventive Gerard Manley Hopkins owed much to Milton in the evolution of his own distinctive style, finding “counterpointed rhythm”, for example, in the choruses of Milton’s late work, the “closet drama”, Samson Agonistes, which was an element in the development of Hopkins’s own distinctive “sprung rhythm” in his poems. And speaking of Samson, we even have T.S. Eliot echoing that poem in the second of the Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’ (1940): “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark”, echoing Milton’s line: “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon…”.

Then there is the vast heritage of scholarship and commentary on the poet’s works. Such indebtedness is by no means confined to the domain of poetic influence. In the same years of the Blitz in which Eliot was writing the last three Quartets, Winston Churchill was quoting Milton too, for the inspiration of a nation: “They also serve who only stand and wait” (from the sonnet on his blindness, ‘When I consider how my light is spent’).

So, to ignore Milton’s existence, in the context of what continues to presume to present itself as the study of English Literature, makes as much sense as ignoring Homer in Greek, Virgil in Latin, Dante in Italian. It is an anti-intellectual impoverishment of understanding, a version of what the Milton scholar, Michael Wilding, calls “the denial of history”, and of the powerful role of the important component of influence in the development of a literary culture. In his study of the Western canon, Harold Bloom observes that “Milton is the central problem in any theory and history of poetic influence in English”. 

Then there is the much-touted obstacle of the ‘difficulty’ of Milton. Since when, and why, has it become a valid reason, in the pursuit of the life of the mind, to eschew (rather than relish) the study of any important subject or writer – Voltaire described Milton as “the glory and the wonder of England” – in any discipline because it is hard? The pernicious doctrine has seeped into what passes for educational theory today that learning ‘should be fun’, and so any material that presents difficulties can, on that puerile criterion, be disposed of. How often I used to hear colleagues saying that such-and-such a novel – let us say, Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda by George Eliot – could not be put back on the undergraduate course because the students ‘won’t read it now; it’s too long’!  Learning worthy of the name is anything but fun: it is a hard slog, with the distant prospect of mastery for those prepared to put in the effort. And when that mastery does come, as a result of concentrated toil, it brings satisfaction and enrichment that is lights years away from (and infinitely superior to) mere ‘fun’. Anyone who has mastered a musical instrument to that crucial point where you play with ease and accomplishment knows that years of tedious practice have brought about that fluency and effortlessness, “to set a crown”, as Eliot put it, “upon your lifetime’s effort”.

While no-one would suggest that the fascination with what’s difficult (in W. B. Yeats’s phrase) will be a sufficient reason alone to encourage readers to embark on the understanding and appreciation of the 10,000 lines of Paradise Lost, to argue that that is a valid reason for not reading it at all is simply intellectually disreputable, and insulting to undergraduates’ intelligence and commitment.

One of the best ways to entice and encourage readers to embark on the study of Milton is to reveal not only the towering achievement of the epic poem, but the range of the poet’s abilities in works of even the shortest and very accessible kind, such as lyrics (‘Let us with a gladsome mind…’); accomplished sonnets (including several of the most memorable in the language: ‘Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints…’, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint…’); philosophically-themed works, as in the juxtaposition of the active and contemplative lives in ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’; the ode, as that ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’; the masque known as ‘Comus’; the little-regarded Paradise Regained, which sounds like a sequel to Paradise Lost, but has its own intimate and focused integrity, with the single subject (from St Luke’s Gospel) of Christ’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness – and many other works besides.  Together, these amount to a splendid final statement of a century of the richest period of the exploration and development of poetry and poetic forms in the English Renaissance.

With regard to Paradise Lost itself, the multiple reasons for the necessity of its study include the recognition that it is the first complete and only epic poem in the English language – Milton’s “sage and serious [Edmund] Spenser” having left an earlier attempt, The Faerie Queene, a national epic centred on Elizabeth, incomplete, its six books being only half of the intended poem. Milton himself had discarded an early plan to compose an epic of Arthurian kind. And further to the poem’s extraordinariness, is the striking matter that Paradise Lost is unique in epic literature as, in the course of presenting the story of the creation, fall and redemption of the human race, it overturns the essential preoccupation of heroic poetry, where the courage of the hero is exemplified in physical acts of heroism. Instead, Milton concentrates on and celebrates the development of moral heroism; the spiritual warfare of fallen humanity against the ever-present powers of sin. The poet roundly (and satirically) rejects former epic models focused on bodily prowess:

this Subject for Heroic Song
Pleas’d me long choosing, and beginning late;
Not sedulous by Nature to indite
Warrs, hitherto the onely Argument
Heroic deem’d, chief maistrie to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabl’d Knights
In Battels feign’d; the better fortitude
Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom
Unsung; or to describe Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon’d Shields,
Impreses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgious Knights
At Joust and Torneament; then marshal’d Feast
Serv’d up in Hall with Sewers, and Seneshals;
The skill of Artifice or Office mean,
Not that which justly gives Heroic name
To Person or to Poem. (IX, 25-41)

He replaces this with the teaching he summarises in one of his most quoted prose passages, from the Areopagitica (1644), ‘A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England’:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary

The heroic striving of the spirit is central to the theme of Paradise Lost – not the stuff of fable, but the essential fact of human life: the perpetual warfare of “the upright heart and pure” (I, 17) with the evil one.

So Milton’s characterisation of his most celebrated dramatic creation, Satan, the enemy of humanity, is crucial to the undertaking. Not for nothing was the poet writing in the wake of the age of Shakespeare: “Dear son of memory, great heir of fame….”, as he says of him in the commemorative sonnet of 1630. And it was the Shakespearian soliloquy, in particular, that provided the inspiration for Milton’s unfolding of the tragic story of fallen Lucifer, who is not only an instrument of evil, such as Macbeth, but its very embodiment, as his role as the doomed protagonist of the ultimate revenge tragedy unfolds:

Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d
With other promises and other vaunts
Then to submit, boasting I could subdue
Th’ Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vaine,
Under what torments inwardly I groane:
While they adore me on the Throne of Hell,
With Diadem and Sceptre high advanc’d
The lower still I fall, onely Supream
In miserie; such joy Ambition findes.
But say I could repent and could obtaine
By Act of Grace my former state; how soon
Would higth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feign’d submission swore: ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc’d so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare
Short intermission bought with double smart.
This knows my punisher; therefore as farr
From granting hee, as I from begging peace:
All hope excluded thus, behold in stead
Of us out-cast, exil’d, his new delight,
Mankind created, and for him this World.
So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good.  (IV, 73-110)

A plethora of oxymora characterises this tormented angel, throughout the poem, as in his culminating determination here: “Evil be thou my Good”, and in Milton’s forecast, at the beginning of the poem, of his ultimate, perverted fate:

with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. (I, 214-220)

The irony here is at the heart of the thesis of Paradise Lost and is focused on the concept of the felix culpa: the fortunate Fall. As in a work replete with structural components of parallel and contrast, the hellish paradox of Satan’s fate is offset by this heavenly paradox. Had not Satan been successful in securing his perverse victory over Adam and Eve, the ultimate triumph of the redemption of humanity by the sacrifice of Christ, for sin, would not have been occasioned, bringing not merely good out of evil, but a greater good, as celebrated by Adam in the epic’s last book:

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Then that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! (XII, 469-73)

But, tellingly, Eve has the last word, in the context of biblical typology, where individuals and events from the Old Testament prefigure those in the New. The first Adam looks forward to the second, Christ. So, the first Eve, anticipates the Virgin Mary, as ‘Eva’ is reversed in the angelic salutation at the Annunciation, ‘Ave’:

though all by mee is lost,
Such favour I unworthie am voutsaft,
By mee the Promis’d Seed shall all restore. (XII, 621-23)

As important as this theological teaching, is the moral principle at the heart of Paradise Lost and of the poet’s life. No ethical ideal was more valued by Milton than the concept of the freedom of the individual, the liberty to choose right from wrong and the truly heroic autonomy that steadfastly refuses to submit to tyranny of any kind. This is captured, tellingly, in the representation of the seraph Abdiel, who rebels against Satan’s burgeoning power. Isaac Asimov has argued that Abdiel is a representation of Milton himself:

Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov’d,
Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passd,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he susteind
Superior, nor of violence fear’d aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turn’d
On those proud Towrs to swift destruction doom’d. (V, 897-907)

So, in sum, this is why Milton matters: he is, arguably, the greatest of poets writing in English; he is the author of the only complete epic poem in the language, as well as being the author of an astonishing range of poems, in different styles, that few other poets have matched. For centuries, he exercised an influence, whether in imitation or deviation from his ideas and practice, more potent than that of any other poet; and in both his life and work, in prose as well as poetry, he was a passionate defender of a fundamental principle of human life that, once again in our period of history, is under enormous threat: the absolute freedom of the individual will, of thought and speech from the tyranny of totalitarianism, political and ideological.

Let John Milton have the last word, in prose (and, again, from the Areopagitica), of the reason why we should defend and promote great books, such as his, against all the pernicious, censorious influences, most disturbingly in our universities today, which are committed to suppressing them:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them…. as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life

On the Occasion of President Obama’s Wreath for the Confederate Memorial

General Robert E. Lee

RONALD MAXWELL says Americans should treat their contested past with imaginative sympathy

A speech delivered 7 June 2009 at the annual commemoration of the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery

Greetings. I am humbled when I see the list of former speakers for this event: the great Civil War historian James I. Robertson, former Secretary of the Navy and current Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Jim Webb, former National Park Service chief historian and revered doyen of Civil War battlefield guides, Ed Bearrs. Following in his footsteps, on a hot and humid day at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri as I did a few years back, doesn’t mean I can fill his shoes today.

The history of America is a history of liberation.

Liberation from the dark superstitions of the Salem witch hunts, from ignorance about the native peoples who inhabited this continent before the 17th century, liberation from a domineering and oppressive parent country an ocean away, liberation from the religious wars of Europe by codifying in law the separation of church and state, liberation from hereditary power, from aristocratic noblesse oblige, from arbitrary justice and unchecked political power.

The history of America is a history of liberation.

Transforming hearts

In the 19th century the work of liberation would continue, slowly, falteringly, but steadily. Before slavery could be ended by law a transformation of the hearts and minds of Americans had to take place. Mammon is a heavy shackle on the soul. When profits are fused with prejudice change is even harder to accomplish. It is argued that the liberation of America from the nightmare of slavery would have happened in time, as it did throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere, without a savage Civil War. Alternate histories and speculations of paths not taken are of endless interest, but the facts of history cannot be undone. We did have a brutal Civil War. And the work of liberation continued.

Even with a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution protecting the rights of the individual more securely than in any other society, by the last third of the 19th century half of the population, at least in the law, were viewed as 2nd class citizens. It took another liberation movement, led by the Suffragettes, to secure women their rightful place among a free people.

The history of America is a history of liberation.

Opening minds

Pre-dating the American Revolution, the Enlightenment had created a new and initially limited space for intellectual scepticism and inquiry that would lead in time to the great scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Founders of the great American experiment in self-government were students of the social philosophers and natural scientists of their time. They designed a society that would enable innovation, invention and scientific inquiry. Dogma, the heavy blinders of ignorance, would yield, decade by decade, to the advance of knowledge — or, to put it another way, the liberation of the mind.

No one was prescient enough to anticipate the extent of the horrors of the 20th century. While Americans wrestled with the lingering, festering vestiges of racism, with the repeal of Jim Crow laws and the eventual implementation of integration and Civil Rights, Europe and Asia fell under the seductive spell of the totalitarian impulse — as Nazism and Communism both sought to dominate mankind, to usher in a new dark age of a thousand year Reich or a New Soviet man. Our work of liberation continued. It was hard fought and hard won.

The price of liberty

We stand in the middle of a cemetery where thousands of graves give mute testimony to the price of liberty — for ourselves and for others. These graves stand as monuments not just to the slain — but to remind us of a world that could have been, but for their sacrifice. A world of oppression, a world of ignorance, a world of conformity. One need only look at the images from Pyong Yang in North Korea — the regimented masses offering homage to their supreme leader — to catch a glimpse of the prison camp that could have been our destiny as well.

The work of liberation is not done. Perhaps it is a work that can never end, because as long as there is unjustified prejudice in the human heart society must fashion laws to protect and to defend the vulnerable, the weak, the different or the unpopular. No person can be a second class citizen in America.

The history of America is a history of liberation.

A Nation of Firsts

Perhaps because we are, by world standards, a young country, we pride ourselves with firsts. Daniel Boone crossing the Alleghenies. Lewis and Clark venturing to the Pacific-Northwest, the first man on the moon. This year we are celebrating the first African-American president. Agree or disagree with his policies, one must be amazed and impressed, not just by Barack Obama’s individual qualities and personal story, but by America’s story.

Nearly 150 years ago, this nation was torn apart in an apocalyptic orgy of violence that endured for more than four years, costing more than a half million lives, maiming and crippling many more and laying waste to half the country. Anyone who still thinks violence is a means to redress a grievance hasn’t studied the American Civil War.

There is no way that words alone can begin to convey the suffering of that generation. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I made my two movies, Gettysburg and Gods & Generals. To try to bring that time alive for us and for our children.

Reviving our history

Writing a screenplay on an historical subject requires months, yes even years of research before even a word of a screenplay can be written. How could I, or anyone, write dialogue for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, for Robert E. Lee or Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson without spending hour upon hour listening to their own voices in their own time? But how can we know what Jackson said or thought, how he spoke or what was in his heart?

As a filmmaker I have to get as close to these men and women as is humanly possible. I have to make the effort. There are no shortcuts. It must be total immersion. Not just in the record of their own words, written themselves or reported by others, but also of the journalistic accounts of the time, the letters and diaries of those in their immediate circle and the literature they read. It’s from the literature of contemporary authors, whether it be Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mary Johnston or Sidney Lanier that we catch a flavor of how people actually spoke, the vocabulary they used, the sense of metaphor, of colloquialism, accent or regional flavor.

At some point, and every writer finds this place on his or her own, you gain the confidence to begin writing. It’s as if Lee and Jackson, Chamberlain and Hancock are now, somehow, in the room with you. It’s as if you are now listening to what they have to say and just recording their words as someone taking dictation. This is why there is no room for generational judgment or propaganda in filmmaking. I’m not interested in it. Audiences are not interested in it and our posterity will dismiss and discredit any filmmaker who does it.

Why the South fought

This is how I came to know, through the study of their own words, both written and reported by contemporaries and can say without any hesitation, that Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were in their own hearts and minds fighting in a war for liberty, or as they themselves called it, a second War of Independence. To fail to understand this or to refuse to understand this is to fundamentally fail to understand the American Civil War.

Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were in their own hearts and minds fighting in a war for liberty

I’m not saying this out of some misguided notion that we have to feel good about our ancestors or in keeping with 19th century imperatives for reconciliation or to indulge in the futile exercise of trying to justify the present by the past or the past by the present. We can be justifiably appalled at both crimes of commission as well as crimes of omission perpetrated by every generation before and including our own.

As a citizen and as a filmmaker I have no interest in putting anyone on a pedestal or turning anyone into a saint. There simply ain’t no such thing on earth. I am, however, very interested in getting at that elusive thing we call the truth. For two reasons, because it’s important to try, or else why study history at all? And because the closer you get to the truth the more dramatic and exciting it is!

Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson represented at the Confederate Memorial carving at Stone Mountain, GA

A second War of Independence? Or a war for slavery?

Imagine for a moment the irony, the contradiction. Here you have two iconic figures of American History, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, risking their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honour to defend the independence of a new Southern nation called the Confederate States of America. In their eyes they see Federal armies, more than one, marching across the Mason-Dixon Line into their sovereign state of Virginia to suppress their independence, arrest their leaders and forcibly keep them in the polity of the United States.

But here’s the rub. Although both men are individually opposed to slavery and see in the institution a great moral wrong, they are fighting for a government that seeks to continue the institution into the future and possibly into other territories to the west. From our perspective almost a century and a half later, this contradiction makes the fierce intensity of their courage and the steadfast dedication to their cause all the more difficult to understand.

We must talk about the past

In the spirit of the characters who populated my films I gave the question to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who in Gods & Generals has this conversation with his brother Tom. The scene is the Federal encampment at Stoneman’s Switch, February 1863. Chamberlain motions across the empty vastness across the Rappahannock River to the south.

Somewhere out there is the Confederate Army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. I cannot question their integrity. I believe they are wrong, but I cannot question it. But I do question a system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to others — to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom – war is a scourge. But so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another. It is as old as the Book of Genesis and has existed in every corner of the globe. But that is no excuse for us to tolerate it here, when we find it before our very eyes, in our own country

We’re all sinners … and potential saints

We know that Southerners were torn over the issue of secession. We know from countless diaries, letters and other original documents that it was a personal struggle to determine where their deepest duty resided. Each story is unique, whether it be Robert E. Lee’s or a foot soldier from the Shenandoah Valley.

Cadet Moses Ezekiel

The war was already well into its second year when Moses Ezekiel entered his class at VMI, the first cadet of Jewish descent to do so. In May, 1863, one of VMI’s most beloved teachers was brought back to lay in repose in his old classroom, before his burial in Lexington. Moses Ezekiel stood as a Corporal of the Guard by the casket of the slain Confederate hero.

In the spring of 1864 the VMI Cadet Battalion was called on by Major General John C. Breckenridge to come to the aid of their Southern comrades. Of the 257 cadets who marched out of Lexington, the average age was 18, but several had just celebrated their 15th birthday. Their commander was Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp, a 24 year old graduate of the Institute. Ezekiel, at age 20, was a private in Company C.

The first battle of the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign occurred on 15 May, 1864 at the village of New Market, some 80 miles north of Lexington. Union Major General Franz Sigel was attempting to control the terminus of the Manassas Gap Railroad and capture New Market to control the only road across Massanutten Mountain to the east. Breckenridge’s Confederate force numbered about 5,500 troops while the Union force was close to 8,500, spread throughout the region.

On that Sunday morning, as rain began to fall, the armies engaged. At one point, as combined Union artillery and musket fire forced a break in the Confederate line, General Breckenridge gave the command, “Put the boys in and may God forgive me for the order.” The cadets spearheaded the Confederate charge across a rain-drenched wheat field into the Union line.

The butcher’s bill

Almost 60 years later, writing about another war, Wilfred Owen could have been describing the Cadets of VMI in this very moment.

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them: and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space

Charging directly into one of the Union artillery positions, the cadets captured a Federal cannon. Soon after, the men in blue were forced to retreat. Ten VMI cadets were killed and forty seven wounded. It remains until today the only time in American history that a college student body engaged in pitched battle as a single unit. After the battle, Ezekiel was detailed to recovering his classmates, the dead and wounded. It wasn’t long before he found his roommate, Thomas Garland Jefferson, a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson. He had a serious wound to his chest.

Taking him to a nearby home, Ezekiel tended to his suffering friend. On the evening of May 17th, fully two days after the battle, this young Jewish soldier read to his dying Christian brother-in-arms, his requested passages from the New Testament. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…” Moments later, Jefferson died in Ezekiel’s arms.

Virginia Military Academy after General Hunter’s capture of Lexington

A month after the battle, Union General David Hunter’s 18,000 troops marched into Lexington. In retaliation for the VMI Cadets’ role at New Market, Hunter ordered the Institute burned to the ground.

Commemorating the dead

When the war was over VMI reopened in makeshift circumstances and Ezekiel returned to finish his education. Robert E. Lee, appointed president of nearby Washington College, encouraged Ezekiel’s burgeoning artistic talents. Although he had thoughts of becoming a painter, his interest soon turned to sculpture. His studies and subsequent work led him to Cincinnati, to New York City and eventually to Berlin.

In Berlin he met Rudolf Steimering, a well known sculptor, who offered Ezekiel a place in his studio. While there, he produced his first statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead, which, some 30 years later, he cast in bronze and presented to his alma mater, VMI. She keeps vigil over ten inscribed stone tablets, one for each of the cadets who died at Newmarket.

In 1873, at age 29, Ezekiel won the coveted Prix de Rome with his bas relief, Israel. Previous recipients included Delacroix and Ingres. This award allowed him to study in Rome where commissions and fame soon followed.

Ezekiel’s regard for his native South and the Confederate cause never wavered. On a trip to the United States in 1910 he was present at the unveiling of his Stonewall Jackson monument at Charleston, West Virginia and his Thomas Jefferson monument at the University of Virginia. President Taft invited Ezekiel to make a social call to the White House. While waiting for the President, Ezekiel sat in an outer office sketching his thoughts for a new commission he had received from the Congress the day before — a Confederate monument for Arlington Cemetery.

Healing the wounds

The cornerstone was laid on 12 November, 1912, at a ceremony featuring well known orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and James A. Tanner. A former Union corporal who lost both his legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Tanner was the national commander of The Grand Army of the Republic, the largest organization of Union veterans in the country.

Sir Moses Ezekiel

Two years later, now Sir Moses Ezekiel (having been knighted by the King of Italy), the aging sculptor participated in the 50th anniversary of the Battle of New Market with veterans of both sides. Then, on 14 June, 1914 this monument was unveiled before a large crowd. President Woodrow Wilson delivered an address and veterans from North and South placed wreaths on the graves.

We cannot wish our ancestors away, nor should we

During World War One Ezekiel was not able to travel out of Italy. The great artist died of pneumonia on March 27, 1917. The New York Times reported,

The death of Moses Ezekiel, the distinguished and greatly beloved American sculptor, who lived in Rome for more than forty years, caused universal regret in the Eternal City

Ezekiel’s body was finally shipped back to the United States in 1921. On 31 March that year he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, at the foot of this monument. The Marine band played Liszt’s “Liebestraume” and a eulogy was read from President Warren G. Harding, praising Ezekiel as “a great Virginian, a great artist, a great American and a great citizen of world fame.” Flanking his flower-bedecked and American-flag covered casket were six VMI cadets. At the grave site next to the Confederate memorial, a small headstone was placed with the simple words:

Moses J. Ezekiel
Sergeant of Company C
Battalion of Cadets
Virginia Military Institute

Obama honoured fallen Confederates

A few weeks ago a group of more than 40 college professors and historians sent an open letter to President Obama asking him to break with tradition, imploring him NOT to send a wreath to this statue on Memorial Day. In no uncertain terms their argument is that we should not honour the 20 year old Moses Ezekiel who fought so bravely at New Market. We should not honour the boy who cared for his wounded roommate in his dying hour. We should not honour the boy who would spend a lifetime of apprenticing and study to master an art which would bring him prominence on the world stage. We should not honor the artist who was visited in his Rome studio by President Theodore Roosevelt as well as the luminaries and artists of Europe. We should not honor the man who is buried at the foot of this monument, nor any of those whose deaths he commemorated in his magnificent work of art.

President Harding said more on that blustery March day in 1921. He said:

Every line and curve and expression of this monument carries the plea for a truly united nation that may be equal to the burdens of these exacting times. It speaks to us the ardent wish, the untiring purpose, to help make our people one people, secure in independence, dedicated to freedom, and ever ready to lend the hand of confident strength in aid of the oppressed and needy. Its long drawn shadows of earliest morn and latest evening will always fall on sacred soil. The genius that produced, the love that gave, the devotion that will cherish it, will forever be numbered among our ennobling possessions

Moses Ezekiel accepted the verdict of the Civil War’s arbitrament with all that fine generosity that has been characteristic of both the North and South; and the splendid product of his art, that here testifies to our nation’s reunion, will stand from this day forth as guardian over his ashes.

Wishing our ancestors away

We cannot wish our ancestors away, nor should we. In the act of designing and erecting these monuments and statues they are telling us what was important to them in their time. By leaving for us, their progeny, a record in stone, they are expressly calling upon us, their grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to remember.

Shall we do as the professors who signed the letter to our president asked him to do — shall we heap scorn upon these monuments and chastise those who will not? Should we do as their doctrinaire kin in Afghanistan did? Shall we, like the Taliban, destroy our statues with dynamite because they offend a prevailing dogma? Shall we disinter the bones of our ancestors like the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution did, scattering their unearthed remains to the winds — first to be reviled, then ever to be forgotten?

Unless we’re prepared to tear down every statue and monument in America we must instead take stock. What are these statues? Who cared so much to place them in the village green, the town square or the local cemetery? Instead of behaving like censorious cultural commissars or inquisitorial accusers, can we not instead meditate on their meaning for our country and in our own lives? Can they not be seen as invitations of rediscovery, of sacred places set aside in the quiet corners of our lives, for communion with our ancestors — for a portal to understanding who they were and who we are?

Confederate prisoners after the Battle of Gettysburg

Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founders, the Confederates

Yes, Christopher Columbus’ discovery hearkened the demise of native civilizations. But he was also the bold navigator and explorer who discovered a New World.

Yes, the Pilgrim Fathers of New England brought the medieval darkness of witch trials to the Massachusetts Bay colony. They also founded a culture that gave birth to the great institutions of learning at Harvard and Yale.

Yes, Peter Stuyvesant was a ruthless administrator who meted out arbitrary justice and dispossessed natives from the Hudson Valley. He was also at the center of a Dutch-American culture that introduced religious tolerance, free trade and innovation to the American colonies.

Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. They also founded a new country which enshrined liberty in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Yes, Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson fought on the side of a fledgling nation that practiced the indefensible and intolerable institution of slavery. They were also men of great honor, impeccable integrity and extraordinary personal courage.

Yes, the migration to the West following the Civil War caused death and destruction to the Native American populations from the Mississippi to the Pacific. It also forged the pioneer spirit, built the transcontinental railroad, fostered the economic development of vast natural resources and laid the foundations that became the world in which we live.

Yes, the greatest generation fire-bombed Dresden and Leipzig and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. They also liberated millions and won a war against evil on a scale the world had never seen before.

Shall we imitate the Taliban?

Perhaps we should, as these professors imply, tear down all the statues. Far fetched? Didn’t Bill Ayers, who signed this letter, already do this very thing in the sixties and seventies? Blow up statues with explosives? In an interview that was published in the New York Times, would you believe, on 11 September, 2001, Bill Ayers is quoted as saying, ‘’I don’t regret setting bombs, I feel we didn’t do enough.’’

Why then would we want to remember or commemorate any of our history? Why indeed? Why pay homage at monuments to World War Two veterans or Vietnam vets? As I remember it, back in the day more than a few signers of this letter were less than friendly, to put it charitably, to returning vets from Vietnam.

And what about our brothers and sisters risking their lives today in Iraq or Afghanistan? Surely, the requirement to honor their sacrifice must be reconsidered in the light of the scandal of prisoner abuse. Why honour or remember anyone or anything at all? In fact, why should our descendants, living a hundred or two hundred years from now have any interest at all in what we said or did in our time? That is of course, assuming they’re still living with the blessings of liberty.

Name and shame the vandals

I think there’s a solution to this quandary. The American people should subscribe to a national monument to the professors who signed this letter. Their names should be prominent, engraved in stone for eternity. Can you just see it now, in letters four feet tall, William C. Ayers, James M. McPherson. All 48 heroes. Then, the inscription below:

Behold, the learned scribes. They showed us the way to our true humanity. Before this, the one and only true monument was erected, there were vile statues in every town, in every park, in every corner of America. Thanks to these saviours from academe, the false idols were struck from their pedestals and erased from memory. Now there is only this, the monument to the Holier Than Thou

Edmund Burke, political philosopher, member of Parliament and friend to the American Patriots of ‘76, of whom, incidentally, there stands a statue in Washington DC, penned these words:

Society is an open ended partnership between generations. The dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living. To dishonor the dead is to reject the relation on which society is built — the relation of obligation between generations. Those who have lost respect for the dead have ceased to be trustees of their inheritance. Inevitably therefore, they lose the sense of obligation to future generations. The web of obligations shrinks to the present tense

President Barack Obama, to his everlasting honour, and in keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, on Memorial Day just two weeks ago sent a wreath to Moses Ezekiel’s monument to the Confederate dead.

Shall we dig them up and kill them again?

Can we not now, finally and at long last liberate ourselves from this dark night of political correctness, from sectarian ideologues who refuse to see those with whom they disagree as human beings? Will we liberate ourselves from this stultifying, sanctimonious self-justifying moral righteousness — this need to demonize, to condemn and to desecrate? How many times must we exhume these corpses to kill them again and again and again? Can we not see our ancestors, finally and unequivocally, as the flawed imperfect men and women they were, trying desperately to do the right thing and often risking their lives to do so? Black and white, man and woman, north and south — they paid in their blood. They paid in their sorrow and in their loss.

I myself am neither a Confederate nor a neo-Confederate, whatever that means. I am simply an American — and that’s enough for me. I belong to no organizations, clubs, round-tables or societies related to the Civil War or indeed to anything else. But I will not be intimidated from speaking at memorials for Confederate or Yankee soldiers — nor silently stand by as others heap insult and scorn on anyone who does. I am no one’s mouth-piece or propagandist. I have no axe to grind or grievance to nurse. I am no more and no less than a free man.

I spent 25 years making two films on the Civil War. I know I have fallen far short of my own aspirations and the expectations of many others — but it was not for want of trying nor of making anything less than the fiercest effort to get to the truth of the matter — to the mysterious heart of the human condition with all its paradoxes, contradictions and complexities.

The line through the human heart

It’s only because some folks have appreciated these movies that I’m called upon to speak at Civil War events across the country — at colleges, high schools, civic groups, history fairs, film festivals and commemorations like the one today. For James McPherson to lend his name to this cheap personal smear, a man whom I have met with mutual friends and colleagues at Civil War events over the past 17 years, says more about him than me.

This is what happens when actual people are dehumanized for ideological reasons. This is how a good man like Moses Ezekiel gets turned into a war criminal deserving of no respect.

In The Gulag Archipelago Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and to destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being

One people, under God

This monument is dedicated simply to, Our Dead Heroes. Let us today, rededicate ourselves to a renewed healing for ourselves and for our posterity. I believe President Obama when he calls us to move and grow beyond our sectarian or regional differences. Not blue states or red states but the United States. Isn’t this just another way of saying not North or South, but America? Isn’t his voice, shaped on the south side of Chicago in the Twentieth Century, the same as Ezekiel Moses’s voice, shaped in the Shenandoah Valley in the 19th — calling us to be one people under God?

We cannot get there unless we get right with all our ancestors. We cannot get there as a people until we recognize that Frederick Douglass and Robert E. Lee are our fathers, that Harriet Tubman and Anna Jackson are our mothers. We cannot get there until, in Lincoln’s words, “with malice towards none and charity towards all, we bind up the nation’s wounds,” even the lingering wounds of memory, even the festering wounds of prejudice, even the self-blinding wounds of moral narcissism. Can we, even we here, become the better angels of our nature?

I will close my remarks with a poem by Walt Whitman, entitled “Pensive On Her Dead Gazing,” written within days of Appomattox. It is a poem I kept tucked in my breast pocket or taped to the motion-picture camera on each and every day of filming on Gettysburg and Gods & Generals:

Pensive on her dead gazing I heard the Mother of All,
Desperate on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battlefields gazing,
(As the last gun ceased, but the scent of the powder-smoke linger’d,)
As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d,
Absorb them well O my earth, she cried, I charge you lose not my
sons, lose not an atom,
And you streams absorb them well, taking their dear blood,
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly
And all you essences of soil and growth, and you my rivers’ depths,
And you mountain sides, and the woods where my dear children’s
blood trickling redden’d,
And you trees down in your roots to bequeath to all future trees,
My dead absorb of South of North—my young men’s bodies absorb,
and their precious precious blood,
Which holding in trust for me faithfully back again give me many a year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence,
In blowing airs from the fields back again give me my darlings, give my immortal heroes,
Exhale me them centuries hence, breathe me their breath, let not an atom be lost,
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial sweet death, years, centuries hence.

(Selected research text by permission of Keith Gibson, from Moses Ezekiel, Virginia Military Institute Museum, 2007)

Medusa’s hair

Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1610

SYDNEY LORD finds a metaphor for cancel culture in mythology

Medusa, with her famous hair of writhing snakes, has had many metamorphoses over the centuries – so many the Greeks and Romans stopped counting. After World War II, some feminist activists – which I call ‘femocrats’- used Medusa as a mascot. The Gorgon’s gaze, as we know, was enough to strike dead any male (nowadays, preferably a white male) who held back any talented, brilliant, intellectually savvy, sovereign woman. Yet Medusa, who was considered beautiful in one of her guises, is also used by the fashion house, Versace.

To me, Medusa’s hairdo is the perfect mascot for all the quarrelling, snarling and bickering by the Opinionated and the Offended we enjoy in well-to-do democracies. If ever a hairstyle disagreed with itself, it is Medusa’s, and disagreeing with themselves is what democracies do every day – distracting them from their own protection, while their pockets are being systematically picked.

People snarl about sex, which has been dissociated from love and marriage, and rechristened ‘gender’, which until recently was a purely grammatical term. ‘Gender’ enables those with sex-in-the-head (thank you, D. H. Lawrence), often non-medical teachers or school counsellors, to insist there are ever so many sexes or, rather, genders, in some cases necessitating surgery for full realisation. It seems to me that rushing to diagnose a pupil or student, and suggest hormone treatment or even surgery, reeks of ‘social engineering’ and maybe even child abuse. Is this more about asserting power than righting wrongs? (1)

A second area of quarrelling is ‘equality’. What exactly this means is a puzzle. Does it mean equity? Does it mean equal legal rights for all – or that we should all be the same in a mental Mao suit? Doesn’t affirmative action, or quotas, contradict sameness, or equity, or equality? Must inequality, for whatever reason, always be compensated for? Mightn’t affirmative action mean that someone who enters school or university with a lower education than those who enter normally is always running hard to keep in the same place? Why not give everyone of every background such a good education, even if this means extra effort at times, that they will not need affirmative action? Forgive the thought, but who would want an affirmative action brain surgeon? Affirmative action may be fine in Gender Studies, which are unlikely do any harm – unless it is in school counselling. (Shouldn’t school counsellors have a degree in Offence Studies too?)

A propos equality, equity, and sameness, I feel compelled to mention that in Mao’s gift of Marx’s equality to women, women were still given lower wages than men. Educated, CEO-class femocrats in highly developed democracies argue endlessly about getting equal pay for equal work. But this is a wealthy women’s quarrel. Here in Australia, the altruistic professions, generally lowly paid everywhere, have ‘equity of pay’. Those who do really important everyday jobs –  nurses, carers, emergency phone operators, ambulance medicos, police, fire fighters, coastguards and soldiers are given equal pay. (Some want no pay at all, and wish to remain volunteers.) But should equity of pay ever waver, there are unions, plus open, cogent and constructive debate – while the CEO sector bickers over millions of dollars. Recently, University of Sydney management magnanimously gave up 20% of their income – but it turned out to be their bonuses. Such feminists might briefly stop thinking about money, and spare a very deep thought for brave, individually-minded women in some Islamic countries, like the recently shot Afghan woman film director, Saba Sahar.

A third area of bickering is ‘diversity’. This is simultaneously a dull abstraction, and an enforced mantra that sparks all sorts of unpleasantness. I don’t have a definition and have never heard a good one, but I suspect it means diversity of ethnicities. It seems to me to mean something like this – there are too many Anglo-Celts in the world; they should either be equalled in numbers by ‘Others’ or they should be flooded out. Yet highly-paid jobs that rely heavily on appearances, like TV presenting, display oodles of beautiful and professional persons of many ethnicities. So too do the highly educated professions, like law or medicine, and innumerable small businesses. Given all this evidence, no doubt the squabbling over diversity will soon cease…and then all those corporations and universities that have ‘Diversity Toolkits’ (don’t laugh) can put them away for good.

Alas, this leads into a fourth area – racism. This is not a dull abstraction, but one fraught with very loud squabbling, and self-righteous rage of the worst kind, plus oodles of conceit and confected Offence. This is apparently not an improved situation and gives rise nearly every day to both big and small squabbles, and very muddled arguments. Medusa’s vipers are in a downright frenzy over this.

A small example concerned the taxpayer-funded national broadcaster of Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The ABC was utterly abashed and compelled to spend quite a large amount of extra tax money averting a racist disaster in a children’s series, featuring a dog named Bluey. No, Bluey did not offend any blue races. The offence was that a phrase “ooga booga” was used in this children’s series. ‘Someone’ unnamed complained, because ‘ooga booga’ was used in Hollywood movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s to represent ‘traditional cultures’ negatively. This offence was important enough to be reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (2). The ABC suspended the episodes until they could be changed in case any tiny tot film buffs or, indeed, any representatives of ‘traditional cultures’ were in the ABC audience. Embarrassing and expensive silliness occurs repeatedly to avoid varying degrees of guilt imposed by the Perennially Offended, in this case, the certain ‘someone’ who complained. Quite mysterious. I have a vision of a tiny tot or tribesman phoning in their complaint… (To make offence easier, why not have an app?)

Recently, the Australian Senator Matthias Cormann was criticised for joking that the Commonwealth was ditching its white official cars for dark grey, as whiteness was colonial. Should I open the floodgates of squabbling, guilt and offence by revealing that our great Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was chauffeured in a black Bentley? Black and British-made! How could he have been so inept? He obviously did not foresee the offence 70 years hence. Joking aside, we must never lose sight of the ignorance that is necessitated for genuine silly offence. There is a long-established brand of cheddar sold in Australia, called Coon Cheese. Inevitably, overnight this became racially offensive, and now the name is to change. But the first maker of the cheddar was a Mr Coon. So who has race writ large in their empty head space – Mr Coon, or those who saw his name as racist?

Australia is not trivial all the time. It does some egregious acts of trying to retro-right old wrongs. Recently, a Green Party employee, Ms Xiaoran Shi, was charged with vandalism  for spray-painting Captain Cook’s statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park with the message “No Pride in Genocide”. Usually Captain Cook is accused of discovering Australia, in his time called New Holland (whoever by?), when he wended his way along the East Coast. Why he is accused of discovering Australia, I don’t know. (He brilliantly mapped Newfoundland too, but no one has accused him of discovering Newfoundland.) George Collingridge’s classic 1895 account of the discovery of Australia by Europeans is called, reasonably enough, Discovery of Australia. It stops before Captain Cook. Why? Because he did not discover Australia. This worthy book ends with the 17th century, and mainly the Dutch – although the English buccaneer William Dampier is in here too. Dampier luckily has no statue. I am guessing a statue of him would need quite a long explanatory plaque. He was very offensive. He came to Australia more than once. He took a look at the west coast, collected some botanical specimens, and was in contact with what appeared to him near-starving natives. Finally, he gave the land a miss after some investigation near Broome. Think of how one could vandalise his statue for that 400-year insult – ‘Don’t give a Damn for Dampier’.

But it is Cook who cops it all. No one seems dispassionate about him. Cook is supposed to have taken pride in genocide. But he was not on land long enough; nor did he have a Gatling gun which might have enabled him to commit genocide during his short stay. Besides, he did not want to. To Cook, the natives were amazing. There were natural misunderstandings and skirmishes, but Cook avowed “their features are far from disagreeable and their voices soft and tunable” (3). He felt them to be “happier than Europeans”, and clearly respected them. Admittedly, he was shocked at their nudity – and failed to see this was wise dress sense in northern Australian summers (perhaps the vandals of his statues should have written “No Prudity in Nudity”). But this was his own private thought, as an abstemious man. He could not have known what Lord Byron aka Don Juan, later rhymed with great personal understanding:

The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone: 
What men call gallantry, and gods call adultery, 
 Is much more common where the climate’s sultry

Blame such dress sense on the sun. But Cook did not scold the natives like some missionary bore, nor did he take advantage of the climate sultry, surely an overlooked point in his favour.

Most significantly, Cook felt that the natives could not be numerous – a fact that ought to be remembered before levelling wild allegations of mass slaughter. He saw that the natives searched for food over large tracts of land. Not only that, having seen canoes all over the world, Cook deemed the barks he saw of poor quality, which may very well be the reason a people living in this huge land for 60,000 years did not discover Europe first. This observation is surely not to be held against the Captain. So on the whole Cook was a good guy, if not wholly au fait with Aboriginal ways of life. Let’s forgive him for coming to Australia. This great big extraordinary chunk of an island continent was bound to be a curiosity to any thinking being, as it is to the thinking beings already here. Whatever happened, good or bad, after he paddled along the east coast was not his fault. In fact, his visit to Hawaii brought horror upon him rather than the reverse, and few would argue that fate was deserved.

Admittedly, under orders from George III, Cook did ‘plant the flag’. Perhaps that is his real Offence. But one might say he also planted modernity, which grew and thrived eventually, everyone on this land participating in it to some degree or other, as cultures should – borrowing, learning and growing. Perhaps Ms Xiaoran Shi should have vandalised a statue of George III with, say, “No Obsession for Possession”. Unfortunately, George III is hardly ever given a fair press, and anyway he has no statue in Australia.

But before hatred for George III comes into play, spare a kind thought for him. Whatever his failures about “taxation without representation” (his statue in the 13 colonies was vandalised and destroyed), he amazed his courtiers by being faithful to his wife. He also founded the heart of a national library; he was interested in science (his collection of instruments is housed in the Science Museum); he had built the King’s Observatory at Richmond-upon-Thames; and he funded the world’s largest telescope for Herschel.  What’s more, he gave half his income to charity. Not only that – he was interested in the seminary of Maynooth and its founding in 1795 for Irish Catholics, and granted the charter for Dartmouth College in America for the “local Indians” and Anglo “gentlemen”. He was much interested eventually in stopping slavery. Later, the Royal Navy interdicted slave ships from many countries, and in some countries, like Brazil, stopped it completely. As a proud historian of Britain and anti-slavery, Professor Jeremy Black of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, says:

The Royal Navy was still in action against the slave trade in the Red Sea in the 1920s…. the role of the Royal Navy was central to ending the slave trade…. That was a great achievement of imperial Britain, and Britain today remains a key state in the suppression of the vile trade in human misery (5)

So before porphyria so cruelly overtook him, George III did many good deeds that today are unknown or ignored. Disparage him for not doing enough against slavery, if you will, but he did try.

But before I start to discuss my beloved Britain, warts and all, I feel compelled to say something of education in Australia, which applies to universities elsewhere. This is too large an issue to explain in detail, but may I mention that education is generally dumbed down, wherever it is required to make more money, to get more students? Kevin Donnelly demonstrates this clearly in a recent work (6). Dr. Donnelly is Australia’s pre-eminent warrior on education against think-shrink, groupthink, mandated ideology, and the many quislings in educational structures, be they academics, union leaders, or Vice Chancellors. He reminds us that the harm of a poor or dishonest education is incalculable. There is harm to the teachers and to the pupils and students and to the future. 

The most recent spectacle in a long line of Australian spectacles was the treatment of Peter Ridd, a Queensland academic who was sacked after 30 years for disagreeing over his university’s “mandated policy” on the Great Barrier Reef. Drew Pavlou, a university student in Queensland, was also a victim of his university’s wrath, for warning against too much reliance on China. Schools and universities used to mean getting a sense of the interconnectedness of knowledge, knowledge from any and every capable culture, and come to understand the world. Even if, at university level, you decided to specialise in aspects of that knowledge, you could have faith you were learning truth, could debate freely, and engage in significant thought. With lectures one could trust, one could feel able to face the future.

But now universities in Australia have strayed into thinking they are in the corporate world rather than the service sector. They have become ‘useful idiots’ in a cause even they only dimly comprehend. Sydney University actually advertised itself as the “University of Unlearning”. Universities have pushed easy and foolish subjects, while at the same time pleasing China by sharing research and hosting Chinese government-subsidised Confucius Centres (7).

Universities and institutes are not meant for mandated ideas or fixed group-think. Such engineering in education will inevitably make you the obedient owner of that dangerous thing, “a little learning” (thanks, Alexander Pope). Having a fixed ideology makes you the vacuum which nature abhors but a tyrant adores. Knowledge, openness and truth benefit all mankind. It is the duty of every school or university to expand and share knowledge and make sure it is the truth, so that we all may stand on what Isaac Newton famously called “the shoulders of giants” (8), rather than give in to bullies, social media sillies, and cringing quislings. Whether activists or universities like it or not, they are a part of Western Civilization (an antediluvian-sounding term, but now needed more than ever).

As Professor Simon Haines notes,

The very terms …critics use to attack ’Western civilisation’, sceptical, empirical, political, are the terms it has taught them. The …spaces they march in and protest in, the institutions they condemn are the ones it has built and opened and maintained for them. The liberal tolerance they sneer at is what tolerates their sneers, where other civilisations would have imprisoned them, and do. Its openness to the whole world, to new experience, its adventurous spirit of discovery and curiosity, its desire ‘to strive, to seek, to find’, and yes, its capacity to criticise itself, is what has distinguished this civilisation from others. Its very variety of culture and values, so often incompatible and conflicted, has also given it a hybrid toughness, a capacity to adopt and assimilate, to tolerate, and include. Millions of non-Westerners (including some who think it wicked) want nothing more than to live in it, while Westerners lucky enough to have it as a birthright, take it for granted. How we would miss it if it really didn’t exist! It may not be a perfect model for a fully inclusive or genuinely liberal human civilisation, one neither repressive nor prodigal, but truly magnanimous. Still it may be the closest we’ve yet come as a species (9)

A few years ago, what British femocrats did to a genuine old-time learned scholar and scientist, Sir Timothy Hunt, for a jokey remark about women in laboratories, was more despicable, and ominous, than mere bickering. None of them weighed the achievements of this man against their Offence at a passing remark. Medusa could hardly keep her lid on over this.

By contrast, along comes Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. Not long ago, Professor Andrews, although he does write books too, would have been called an ‘airport professor’, but today, with morning TV shows that have to be filled with something, he is a TV professor and fronts many disagreements on these shows – mostly disagreements of his own making. He calls himself an “activist”, apparently seeing no conflict between that and disinterested, deep learning. He got enormous publicity on Good Morning Britain by labelling Winston Churchill a racist, even a man who committed war crimes. He also called ‘whiteness’ a psychosis, referring to all the endeavours of those pinky-beige skinned people.

Not only this, but he took the view that the British Empire was worse than the Nazi regime – because it lasted longer than Nazi Germany, and was similarly based on race. Andrews is an intelligent man, albeit a Johnny-one-note. He knows he is hurting his TV viewers, but that’s activism for you. (A scholar would never strive to hurt.) He ignores the simple fact that Britain was the sole free country in Europe, facing a titanic threat. And at the head of that little country was a brave, brilliant, chubby old man, on whose every word people everywhere hung. I recall his voice coming through the crackling short wave radio, as we crouched in our basement, thousands of miles from the action, wanting his words to help bring home a beloved brother.

Whatever Professor Andrews says, Birmingham City University – mirabile dictu – stands behind him. Whether out of a sense of real guilt or to avoid being sued, it said:

We do recognise that comments such as those you [the complainant] refer to may be considered controversial by some but this does not negate our respect [sic] for the ability of all individuals to exercise freedom of speech within the law

(If only Sir Timothy Hunt had worked for Birmingham City University.) As for the Empire, when all is sorted out, it was of its time and is no more.  The Commonwealth that emerged in its place, with its shared experience, knowledge and values, may prove more globally useful than the UN with its toothless vetoes.

Reckless assertions of racism encourage it from others. Caught up in the excited climate, no less a person than the Chief Librarian of the British Library has said “racism is a creation of white people”. Now why isn’t that a racist remark? Isn’t this ‘reverse racism’? Whatever will she think of herself when she looks back in cooler times on what she said? I cringe for her. She is like the young person who rushes to get a tattoo without thinking what it will look like on aged skin when you try to scrub it off. 

There is a wrecking ball at work, trying to smash all the things the British hold dear.  The BBC wanted to change the end of the Proms, the playing of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia. Classical music culture-cleansers may soon go after Eric Coates’s theme to The Dambusters, because mission commander Guy Gibson’s black Labrador bore the name of a then unobjectionable, but now unspeakable, epithet. Small wonder that persons not normally given to public debate are speaking out against the loss of freedom of speech, the loss of perspective, the conceit of being faux-offended and wanting to punish the offender, whether an offence is hundreds of years old or yesterday. Performers who would not normally take to the podium have been doing so recently – Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Nick Cave, Ricky Gervais, Laurence Fox, and others – performers whose time is money, and who stand to lose their reputation and work by speaking out. Famous performers are presently tops for the tumbrils.

Medusa, Frank Stuck, 1892

How can we avert all this ugliness on TV, in the kindergarten, primary school, university and nearly every institution? How can we gel down Medusa’s hair? May I suggest a few home cures?

We could start by knowing more about Marx, in whose name so many idiocies and crimes are carried out. The awkward truth is that Karl hated utopians. He was essentially of the bourgeoisie, a class many think he held among his many hates. But his father, Heinrich, was a highly successful attorney who mightily valued the Enlightenment, and converted to Protestantism in order to avoid the anti-Jewish tergiversation of the Prussian authorities. Karl was an extraordinarily lucky boy. He received a splendid education up to, and including, his PhD at age 23 – the sort of education we all crave, in noted contrast to that of, say, Abe Lincoln. He married a Prussian aristocrat (of little dowry, alas), Jenny von Westphalen. Today, we would call Karl an upper-class prat or a silvertail, but in those days he was only a misguided youngster and a bit of a disappointment to Daddy, who eventually stopped subsidizing him. By joining the Young Hegelians, Marx was combining revolutionary zeal with a filial resentment about money. Even after he found himself living in considerable poverty in London, Jenny continued to have her writing paper embossed, and Karl aspired to a bourgeois marriage for their daughter Laura.

The great idealist would always gravitate towards people with money. Friedrich Engels was a perfect mark – a revolutionary and a man supported by a wealthy Daddy too, a cotton (think slavery, child labour) manufacturer in Manchester. Karl and Jenny battened on him endlessly, eventually inveigling him into also supporting Laura and her equally improvident husband. Many have written astutely on Karl’s true nature and the failings of his philosophy, but still he exerts a mesmeric influence on people who really should know better (10). The countries that adopted or adapted his ideas do not allow the free play of the intellect, whereas Western democracies do (or, perhaps I should say, did).

Avoid labelling anyone anything. When Dehinde Andrews called Churchill a racist, it didn’t allow him a youthful past, a different present, or any inner growth along the way. The young Churchill in the Khyber Pass in the last years of the 19th century was not the same man as the 65 years-old wartime Prime Minister. Labelling cancels complex knowledge; it is a form of think-shrink. Be fair to others, as you would like them to be fair to you. Steer by your own compass; make your own choices. And of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. You cannot solve an old wrong by committing a new one. Vandalising a reputation, or a statue, or a shop, causing anger in and danger to others, decides nothing, solves nothing. It may even make things worse, by awakening old demons, opening old wounds.

Take advantage of intellectual openness while you can. Think, before you join a mob and wreck a statue, a street or a city. As far as possible, learn the truth of every situation, and allow it to temper your temper. You may not achieve Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light”, but you may avoid a ludicrous wrong, or even achieve good judgement. How would it feel in later life to look back, and see you had been manipulated, an automaton when you could have been an independent thinker? Unfashionable though they are, and terribly difficult at times, freedom of speech and thought are your main protections against having all of the Gorgon in agreement for once, her terrible hair roiling and coiling in laughter at you.

Author’s Notes

  1. Dr John Whitehall, a professor of paediatric surgery at the University of Western Sydney, has made a rare stand against the drive to increase gender/sexual hypochondria, neglecting the fullness of a personality with all the co-morbidities of the situation. This brave doctor has amazingly not lost his job for trying to establish the real facts of cases before children face life-changing hormone treatments, or scalpels
  2. 21st August 2020, p.4
  3. See the Sun-Herald Commemorative Portfolio on Cook, Sydney, no date – and Christopher Allen, “A Shared History Worth Celebrating,” Weekend Australian Review, 29th -30th August 2020, pp. 10-11
  4. Fr. George W. Rutler, Crisis, 30th June 2014
  5. Quadrant, September 2020, pp 12-14
  6. How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia, Wilkinson, Melbourne, 2019
  7. Sydney sociology professor Salvatore Babones is acutely aware of this need for money by the corporate university and its complicity with China; he goes so far as to say Australian universities are a “fifth column”. Newsletter, August 2020
  8. Letter to Robert Hooke, 2nd May 1675, although he was not the first to use the expression, which has been traced as far back as the 6th century Latin grammarian Priscianus Caesariensis
  9. See Reclaiming Education, Renewing Schools and Universities in Contemporary Western Culture, eds. C. Runcie and D. Brooks, Edwin A. Lowe, Sydney, 2018, p.51
  10. Marx’s dismissive ideas about women are summed up in what he writes to Ludwig Kugelman: “Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the female foment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social status of the beautiful sex (the ugly ones included)” (Letters of Karl Marx, Selected and edited by Saul Padower, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1979, p.259). For other works on Marx’s life and his work see The Great Economists by Linda Yueh, Penguin. For a critique and elucidation of Marx by a scholarly economist, try The Development of Economic Thought by Alexander Gray (Longman, Green, and Co., London, 1931.  For the slam-dunk on Marx, one must not miss the great Austrian economist, Joseph A. Schumpeter (Oxford University Press, New York, 1954, edited by his widow, Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter)

From Westminster to Whitechapel, and back

Lord Boothby, Reggie Kray and friend

The Peer And The Gangster

Daniel Smith, The History Press, 2020, hb, 256 pages, £14.99

KEN BELL traces an old and sordid story uniting West End and East

The Sunday Mirror thought that it had the scoop of the century in July 1964, when it ran a front-page splash about a prominent peer and a London gangster who were having a homosexual affair. By the following Sunday, the Mirror had obtained photographs of the two men with drinks in their hands, clearly at ease in each other’s company, yet by the following month the paper had issued a grovelling apology and paid the peer the goodly sum of £40,000.

The peer was Bob Boothby, a very well-known radio and television personality in the post-war years. The gangster was Ronnie Kray, who ran the Kray Twins’ gang along with his heterosexual brother, Reggie. Daniel Smith’s book is the story of how and why the tale of these two charmers did not see the light of day for many decades.

Boothby was not a very popular man in senior Tory circles. He had been the lover of Dorothy MacMillan, wife of Harold, who just happened to be the Prime Minister for many of the years when the relationship between Boothby and Kray was in full swing. One would have thought that Harold MacMillan would have wanted to pay back Robert Boothby with interest for putting the horns on him, but the asexual MacMillan just seems to have shrugged his shoulders at the affair. That was probably Boothby’s first bit of luck.

His second came about because the story was set to break in the wake of the Vassall scandal (1) and then the Profumo affair which followed hard on its heels. A third sordid scandal was too much for the government to stand, so the order went out to give Boothby a helping hand. Thus a key hinge to the Mirror story, which was that the Metropolitan Police were investigating the Krays, was kicked away when the compliant Met obligingly denied that any such investigation was taking place.

Labour wanted to take over from the Tories as the government, but they chose to help save Boothby’s political skin. So Harold Wilson sat back whilst the Labour-connected lawyer, Arnold Goodman, went to work putting the screws on the Mirror. Ronnie Kray was not just involved with Bob Boothby, but also Tom Driberg, a homosexual Labour MP. For Wilson, this was about saving Labour as much as anything else. Boothby was obviously bisexual, but there was enough heterosexuality about him to suggest that he might have been able to shrug off the allegations of inversion. That was not the case with the ever-cottaging Driberg, who had no interest in women at all. Had the story been allowed to break, it is quite likely that Labour would have been dragged into it via Driberg, so Wilson seems to have decided that it was better to cover it all up.

The paper provided Boothby’s final card with its poorly-worded story which claimed that the affair was between the peer and the gangster. In fact, Kray had no interest in the fat, over-60, Boothby; what drew them together was a shared desire for “boys”, as they both called the late-teenaged, early-twenties young toughs that came within Ronnie Kray’s orbit and whom he passed on to Boothby.

The relationship between the peer and the gangster, stripped of its homosexuality, was really one of those classical upper-class and working-class meetings of minds based upon a set of shared values. Put bluntly, both groups enjoy their drink, change their bed partners regularly, and both loathe the uptight middle-class. That is probably one of the reasons why working class people vote for Boris Johnson, because he is what they would be if they had money. In mid-1980s Oxford, Boris was very popular with the former miners, steelworkers and dockers who made up the bulk of the Ruskin College junior membership and quite happily voted for him every time he stood for Oxford Union office – and that was at the height of the miners’ strike. I know, as I am the Ruskin man who introduced Boris to my fellows.

The unpleasant aspect of this affair was not the easy sex and louche attitudes of everyone involved. Rather it was the fact that thanks to an establishment cover-up the Krays were allowed to continue wreaking havoc for five more years that left at least two people dead and any number of young men coerced into having sex with Kray and Boothby. One of Kray’s victims was a very young reporter with the Daily Telegraph, who was only able to escape thanks to the intervention of Reggie Kray – but that did not stop Ronnie from sending him on his way with a kick or two, or stop him ordering some underthugs to go and dish out a serious kicking to the poor hack some weeks later. As he was left battered and bleeding on the road, the message was given that it was the price he had to pay for defying Ronnie Kray.

If that could be done to a broadsheet journalist, then the price that a young Eastender would have to pay for defiance does not bear thinking about. That Boothby knew that his playthings had been coerced is beyond doubt, since at least one was produced for him, battered and bruised, and told firmly that if he did not please Boothby he could expect more of the same. This is the sickening aspect of the Boothby/Kray story. It demonstrates that from Boothby via Jeremy Thorpe to Cyril Smith, the list of homosexual abusers really does seem to be never-ending, and all with the connivance of an establishment that seems to be indifferent to the fate of the victims.

Editor’s Note

  1. John Vassall, 1924-1996, was a junior civil servant blackmailed by the KGB into providing the Soviet Union with sensitive naval information. His 1962 arrest and subsequent imprisonment (he was released in 1972) was a major embarrassment to the Macmillan government, and provoked a public investigation of the security services

A. E. W. Mason – moral courage and martial virtue

GREG JINKERSON pays tribute to an influential exponent of the British imperial ideal

In his lifetime, Alfred Edward Woodley Mason (1865-1948) had a reputation as a globetrotting man of action who could turn forays in politics, theater and war into popular and gripping novels. If that had been the sum of his achievement, it would have been no mean feat. A page-turner as a means of escape shouldn’t be despised out of hand, and is far too rare in fiction. And Mason is indeed an entertainer. But his stories are too sermonic to have been conceived as penny dreadfuls. And even if genre appeal was the basis of much of Mason’s popularity, a look at the books themselves, and at the life, reveals something deeper – a writer who could use popular formats to paint a late Victorian picture of manly virtue.

Although best-known today as the author of The Four Feathers (1902), a seven-times filmed story of then-recent British engagement in the Sudan campaign, he wrote 30 novels in a busy 60-year career, alongside several plays, three historical works and numerous short stories for magazines. 

Spanning mystery, thrillers and historical romance, and selling well in each, Mason had clear affinities with authors he admired from a generation earlier like Doyle, Kipling or Haggard – men who had mined exotic career locales for fictional settings and themes to build up imperial verdicts. As for more recent comparisons, he would appear to have few cousins, either political or moral. Current purveyors of swashbuckling or military adventures, like Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy, do not give the reader any lasting moral treasure to carry away.

Born in Camberwell, London, England in 1865, Mason developed an early love for reading, especially adventure stories, as well as for Dickens. Dickens’ painstaking approach would have a large influence on Mason’s own approach to novel writing.

There is not a book of Dickens which does not show that the story was designed to its end before it was written…I think you will hardly analyze any permanent book of imaginative literature and find much trace of the boasted system of sitting down with a pen and a fair sheet of paper, and just letting things go (1)

Mason attended Trinity College at Oxford at the same time as fellow future authors Arthur Quiller-Couch (his roommate at university, nicknamed ‘Q’) and Anthony Hope (author of The Prisoner of Zenda and other novels). Q was something of a mentor to Mason, encouraging him to write as he was embarking on his own first novel.

As an author, Mason was extremely famous in his lifetime, and handsomely paid for his prolific output – at the time of his death in 1948, he was earning from five to six thousand pounds a year from his writings (2). But whether his books were his main claim to fame can be debated, for he had an impressively varied career filled with achievements and travels. There was hardly any profession or hobby that could add glamour and sparkle to a man’s image as the beau ideal in which he didn’t dabble, and in many cases flourish – politics, cricket, historical studies, soldiering, espionage, and exploration.

Burnishing the bohemian side of that ideal, he won much campus fame appearing in student productions at Trinity. After finishing at Oxford in 1888, his first professional job was with a touring company of actors performing in both staged dramas and comedies. It was about this time he first became a published author, issuing a play called Blanche de Maletroit (1894) based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson. He went on to write a number of plays which won him some notice, and earned him some money, on the London stage. Soon enough, that early literary bent which had shown itself at Oxford with Quiller-Couch, Hope and others, led to Mason’s first book, A Romance of Wastdale, in 1895.

In both his professional and literary work, Mason cast a vision of knightly virtue which transcended his own day and retains its appeal seventy years on. In 1906 he was elected Liberal MP for Coventry as part of that year’s “Liberal Landslide” to the Campbell-Bannerman government. Mason served only a single term before retiring from parliament in the next election. During World War I he served with the Manchester Regiment and was promoted Captain, and later joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry. At the end of the war, Mason was involved in counter-espionage work for the British government in both Spain and Mexico. He was offered a knighthood in 1937, but declined the honor.

Much of his popularity and sales arose, no doubt, from his strong command of genre and power to draw milieu without becoming bogged down in historical material. From the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 in The Courtship of Morrice Buckler (1896) to the Mahdi uprising in Sudan in The Four Feathers, Mason could conjure just enough military detail or local color to provide solid scaffolding for the imagination. Yet for all that, settings and genre were incidental to the deeper vision of chivalry he wished to cast in his novels and countless short stories. The plots depend much more upon psychological drama than on their historical backgrounds.

For The Four Feathers, Mason was inspired indirectly by the Anglo-Sudan War of the 1880s and 90s, but more directly by a hunting expedition in the Sudan just two years after Kitchener’s decisive victory over the self-appointed Mahdi Abdullah al-Khalifa and his forces at Omdurman in 1898. Mason’s deft research and eye for detail are abundantly clear throughout the novel. In an early scene, just in passing at a dinner party, we overhear an old war story as told by the hero’s father, General Feversham. The occasion is an annual reunion of old veterans, and the anecdote teems with the kind of historical detail Mason ladled onto scenes as an entrée to the story’s dominating idea:

Lord Wilmington. One of the best names in England, if you please. Did you ever see his house in Warwickshire? Every inch of the ground you would think would have a voice to bid him play the man, if only in remembrance of his fathers…. It seemed incredible and mere camp rumour, but the rumour grew. If it was whispered at the Alma, it was spoken aloud at Inkermann, it was shouted at Balaclava. Before Sebastopol the hideous thing was proved

General Feversham is the reader’s compass, orienting us first in England, and by degrees narrowing the focus. Lord Wilmington would presumably have been a relative of his namesake the Prime Minister, a worthy voice indeed to urge patriotism. If that voice weren’t loud enough, the whisperings of his “house in Warwickshire” suggest Shakespeare, who was born there, would also “bid him play the man.”

Having deftly indexed Wilmington’s national pedigree, Mason launches the story far afield with a list of four places. They are all Crimean locales, and situate the story in that campaign. But more than that, their recitation paints a picture of developing horror, the mortifying change which a rumor of Wilmington’s cowardice undergoes as it flies from town to town and grows to settled fact, spreading throughout the theatre of war. The geography is as may be. Mason’s focus is the dominating idea of cowardice, and the fear which a young boy might feel about finding cowardice in himself.

Most of the General’s guests hang on every detail of his reminiscence of camp life, but two of his listeners are penetrating far further into the interior of Wilmington’s ordeal: the General’s son Harry Feversham, whose birthday is being celebrated at the gathering, and the General’s friend Lieutenant Sutch. As the General’s story concludes,

…there was only one in all that company who sat perfectly still in the silence which followed upon the story. That one was the boy Harry Feversham. He sat with his hands now clenched upon his knees and leaning forward a little across the table toward the surgeon, his cheeks white as paper, his eyes burning, and burning with ferocity. He had the look of a dangerous animal in the trap. His body was gathered, his muscles taut. Sutch had a fear that the lad meant to leap across the table and strike with all his strength in the savagery of despair. He had indeed reached out a restraining hand when General Feversham’s matter-of-fact voice intervened, and the boy’s attitude suddenly relaxed

Harry, whose father entirely misunderstands his son’s cast of mind, finds a kindred spirit in Sutch. Having reached his appointed curfew, Harry leaves the party well past midnight. Passing through a gallery of ancestral portraits, Harry is frozen with guilt and foreboding by their seemingly interrogating faces. Concerned for the boy, Sutch follows him out discreetly. Recognizing Harry’s nascent imaginative powers, as well as his potential for physical courage, he longs to assure him that acting in spite of fear is a more impressive feat than never experiencing fear at all.

[The portraits] were men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship – lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature…men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination; sturdy men, a little wanting in delicacy, hardly conspicuous for intellect; to put it frankly, men rather stupid – all of them, in a word, first-class fighting men, but not one of them a first-class soldier. But Harry Feversham plainly saw none of their defects. To him they were one and all portentous and terrible. He stood before them in the attitude of a criminal before his judges, reading his condemnation in their cold unchanging eyes

There is Sutch’s (and Mason’s) dominating idea: the distinction between a first-class fighting man, stupid and near-animalistic in his conduct, and a first-class soldier, who carries the gifts of imagination, delicacy and intellect. These gifts Sutch has carried into battle, and he knows them also as burdens. His hope for Harry, expressed in an offer of friendship, is that the boy would overcome the burden of imagination and transform it into courage.

Mason’s trip to the Sudan included a visit to the notorious military prison near Omdurman, the House of Stone, which became a typical canvas for one of the book’s most memorable scenes. Harry, having earlier in the book resigned a commission in Egypt that should have been his conventional path to family glory, has since lost most social connections. Three army friends and his fiancée Ethne have sent him four white feathers, signifying his condemnation for cowardice. But gradually, through a series of daring actions proving vast physical courage and mental toughness, Harry redeems himself and wins back their respect.

It is within the House of Stone prison that Harry passes one of these tests of courage. Harry has heard that his friend Trench is a prisoner inside it. After a day of grueling labor, every prisoner toward evening is shoved into the house with little regard for comfort or safety. The size and conditions of the prison are such that men are routinely trampled nightly. Witnessing these horrors night after night, Trench lives in fear of a similar demise.

All of this Harry learns from outside the camp. Despite the danger, he willingly enters the camp as a prisoner for the express purpose of providing his friend Trench with hope and companionship. Their encounter in the House of Stone demonstrates the triumph of Harry’s imagination over his fears, and his graduation from coward to first-class soldier.

Back!” he cried violently, “back, or I strike!” – and, as he wrestled to lift his arm above his head that he might strike the better, he heard the man who had been flung against him incoherently babbling English.

“Don’t fall,” cried Trench, and he caught his fellow-captive by the arm. “Ibrahim, help! God, if he were to fall!” and while the crowd swayed again and the shrill cries and curses rose again, deafening the ears, piercing the brain, Trench supported his companion, and bending down his head caught again after so many months the accent of his own tongue. And the sound of it civilised him like the friendship of a woman

Here was Mason’s gift: to penetrate the fog of war, and bring forth the heartbeat of humanity and friendship behind the rubble of jingoism. Harry resigned his commission, but became a soldier. Mason declined a knighthood, but played the man in every field of endeavour.

Author’s Notes

  1. A.E.W. Mason, “A Few Words on Fiction,” in A.E.W. Mason: Appreciations (New York: George H. Doran Company, no date), p20
  2. Roger Lancelyn Green, A.E.W. Mason (London: Max Parrish, 1952), p89

Two poems by Guy Walker

Guy Walker is a French and Italian teacher who lives on the south coast of England. He edits the magazine https://www.british-intelligence.co.uk/ and blogs at https://roseatetern.blogspot.com/

Spleen by Charles Baudelaire – English Verse Translation

I have a thousand years of memories.

A chest of drawers rammed full of elegies,

Of served writs, billets doux and balance sheets,

Romances, heavy plaits rolled in receipts,

Encloses fewer secrets than my mind;

A pyramid or staggering crypt, you find

Contains more dead than does a limed mass-ditch.

– I am a moon-abhorred graveyard, in which

The biting worms there, like remorseful dread,

Attach themselves onto my hallowed dead.

I am a boudoir decked with shrivelled roses,

And heaps of tired couture, which juxtaposes

With grieving gouaches, bleached Bouchers which inhale

The odour leaked from an unstoppered phial.

When dull indifference’s first born, Ennui,

Takes on the spans of slow eternity,

Then, under heavy flakes of snowy years,

For length, the limping, hobbled days can know few peers.

– And you, a living being, you are no more;

As if drowned on Sahara’s trackless floor,

An old Sphinx who the maps say isn’t there,

Forgotten by a world which doesn’t care,

A granite mass that’s swamped in fear whose cries

Keen desperately; yet to a sun that dies.

Human Discourse

Behind plate windows, and beneath large skylights,

Thick woollen scarves and coats and autumn twilight.

“Technologies in art are superseded,

Egg tempera gave way to oils. What’s needed

Now‘s modern media.” And the crowd of French

Girls laugh and murmur; fidget on the bench.

“The lemon chia seed cake’s lovely, will

You have another latte?” Seeing light spill

Across the Common, passers-by steal glances,

“You can’t dispute that my device enhances.”

Professor Croce cleans his glasses, blinks,

Begins another peroration, thinks

Conception matters more than tools. A dog

Skitters on wooden laminate. “You’ll jog

The waitress, fooling ‘round!” — “ . . . used orpiment,

Lead white and cinnabar.” A hatstand meant

For fewer coats slews drunkenly, till caught,

And ‘busboys’ stack up plastic racks now brought

To steaming scullery door. The street-doors yawn,

Black revenant wind intrudes with dry leaves drawn

From gardens. Later on, and side by side,

The Prof and Eugene cough, their legs astride

And rocking back, sequestered maleness grasped;

They study walls and ceiling tiles while fast

Around white streaming bowls, they let careen

Their urine’s curtain, slewed on porcelain’s sheen.